One of the occupation hazards of being a columnist is that I regularly get ‘buttonholed’ by people with an axe to grind. A lady stopped me in town the other day upset by a comment I made a few weeks ago that spending on cyclists’ safety needs to be increased.
‘Surely’, she said, “the streets were built for cars, so why should cyclists expect to them to be changed for them?” It’s quite a common view, particularly expressed by those who almost exclusively use the streets for driving on.
Although there’s no legal distinction, I think it helps to separate ‘streets’ from ‘roads’. Roads were built simply to move people and goods from place to place.
Most roads were built centuries before the internal combustion engine was invented and for most of their long lives traffic has been living and breathing horses and humans. Domination by motor vehicles is a recent phenomenon.
Streets, on the other hand, are simply the gaps between rows of houses, shops and other buildings.
Whilst many of them were used en route between places they’ve historically been places to buy and sell, for children to play, and to meet and greet friends, neighbours and visitors. We still use terms like ‘the word on the street’ and ‘streetwise’.
Sadly, on all too many of our streets, social interaction has been replaced with individualism. Too many people are now encased in a steel and glass shell, totally isolated from the life of the street. Other people are now expected to ‘keep in their place’ (the pavement) and only cross the street when it won’t inconvenience those using the street to travel along. As a result far too many of our streets have become soulless, polluted and noisy corridors, places to avoid or, at best, to hurry through.
During the 1980s a limited attempt was made to redress the balance by creating ‘pedestrianised’ streets where vehicles were excluded.
Initially they were resisted by many shopkeepers who felt that banning cars would be bad for business.
Obviously they were proved wrong. Who would want to see Lynn’s High Street
reopened to cars?
A more recent development is ‘shared space’ where cars are still allowed but are limited to a very low speed and have to give way to any pedestrians crossing the road. By and large they work well although they depend on self discipline from all road users.
The fall in car use and the increase in walking and cycling presents a golden opportunity to re-assess the role of our streets. Are the Borough and County Councils bold enough to take the challenge?